Monday, August 2, 2021

A way of life for all seasons

Susegad by Clyde D'Souza
Penguin Books, Rs 399 
 Pandemic may have propped scientists to invent ‘anthropause’ as a       new catch phrase to describe forced reduction in human activities but   the traditions of taking a step back, slowing down and living in the   present have been a preferred choice for many societies. Like Ikigai   to Japanese and Hugge to the Dutch, Susegad for the Goans manifests   itself as a way of life, of being at peace with whatever life has to   offer. It may resonate a bit differently in the pandemic era though, as   survivors may have little option but to embrace such traditions to   brave isolation and to address anxieties. By bringing susegad under   focus, Clyde D’Souza suggests conscious replacement of mindless   consumption with mindful living to strike harmony with self. 

 Susegad is an intimate exploration into what Goa should actually be   sought for, beyond its tag of a popular tourist destination. Despite the   humbug of modernity hitting the island county like a nasty wave,   there is a consciously consistent effort by the natives to stand tall   against such onslaught. The humid sluggishness triggered by climate   has found comfort in the culture that has in turn led the human   biological clock to be automated in favor of happiness and satisfaction. The silent ticking of the clock is so deeply integrated into the Goan habits and rituals that they hardly ever notice it. Even a casual Goan response ‘It’s just our style, man’ has so much unsaid in it. 

Pursuing a hybrid style of writing, D’Souza digs out for susegad in all elements of daily existence with a short story and an interview with a native celebrity to pep up the narrative. From tangy curries to reflective proverbs, and from afternoon siesta to distilling feni, each activity and practice is so paced that the person executing it is in control of life. No wonder, most Goans yearn for susegad, meaning quietness, which the pandemic has otherwise thrust upon all others too. Does that not call upon the others to condition themselves to the new normal? Written as much for the curious as for the discerning, the book offers insights on author’s lived experience on a partially understood and inadequately appreciated subject that has something for everyone struggling to make a sense of living amidst pandemic induced fears and anxieties. 

As an accomplished writer, D’Souza has championed to showcase the intrinsic value of susegad rather convincingly and eloquently. He avoids being meditative but remains somewhat prescriptive in conveying how to stay relaxed and contended without doing anything dramatic. Pandemic may have made the case for practicing minimalism more urgent and compelling, but sadness and unhappiness have prevailed far too long to deserve serious attention. Inspiration for building a case for susegad is pitched on repulsive realities of our times which invariably come packaged with material comforts and physical conveniences. The case is rested! 

Susegad is undoubtedly a timely book that lends handy tips on making life more relaxed with an increasing feeling of happiness. It is an easy-to-read book that can be placed in the category of a cultural biography. It indeed is, as it accords a special place to the time-tested cultural practices of the people of Goa. The Goans have long practiced what most of us have been forced to adapt during the pandemic. Far from outsourcing the boring chores, the Goans follow the ritual of in-sourcing. Most of the household activities are done without any outside help, to enforce dignity of labor while building a relationship with the immediate environment and perhaps, adding an element of susegad in one’s life. The lessons are far too many to ignore. 

Susegad is a timely call for course correction to address the underlying fissures and fragilities in our societies. With global pandemic having ripped the world apart, nothing could be more compelling than addressing the micro stressors to tide over the macro challenges.

First published in Deccan Herald, issue dated July 25, 2021

Friday, October 23, 2020

Relevant even after a decade of its first appearance

SAHYADRI: Reminiscences and Reflections edited by Sudhirendar Sharma
Photographs by N.A. Naseer. Prakruti, Sirsi, Karnataka, 2009.

THE benevolent mountain ranges of Sahyadri, the Western Ghats that runs parallel to the West coast of peninsular India, is a unique landscape that must be why it is even recognized as an UNESCO World Heritage Site. There is much to celebrate here thanks to its highly vibrant natural heritage. However, it has its own share of sorrows too, as conflicts keep arising due to competing forces in action for exploiting its rich natural resources. Understanding such pains hidden in these spectacular hills and valleys, therefore, is increasingly becoming necessary, since it impacts the life of billions in peninsula. The book, Sahyadri: Reminiscences and Reflections serves this purpose enormously.
The theme based books on Western Ghats by different experts, treating domains like geology, geography, biodiversity, large wildlife, landscape dynamics, among others, are not rare. And, innumerable literature too is available for user groups like eco-tourists, trekkers and bird watchers. But, this scholarly book stands out as it presents multiple perspectives lucidly, which could enlighten wide spectrum of readers, from ecologists to economists to policy makers. At the same time, it could be enjoyed by the general reader like a coffee table book with compelling photographs. The only other book, perhaps, which could be compared with this in this genre would be Sahyadris: India’s Western Ghats: A Vanishing Heritage, edited by ecologist Kamala Bawa and photographer Sandesh Kadur. Sudhirendar Sharma, a writer and sustainable development professional who has meticulously documented the dynamics of natural resources governance over the decades, has edited this book of eighty pages.

The captivating images of the landscape and its life forms by brilliant photographer N.A. Naseer, have added enormous value to this book. As the editor puts it in his preface, it is an attempt to capture these rich natural phenomena and the challenges in defending them. It focuses mainly on multiple events that took place from the eighties onwards that continue to influence the present and future of these mountains. It can, thus, be seen as a sequel to his own earlier book, Paradise Lost, Almost (2006). While most of the articles here are a reproduction of published works in mainstream print media by different scholars, a few are exclusively written ones.

The first one, ‘Mountains without snow peaks’, gives a vibrant overview of diverse life forms that make this landscape distinct. From of next fourteen write-ups, four broad categories can be discerned. The first set is about the Appiko movement (a ‘tree embracing’ movement), a unique protest by farmers and peasants that originated in the hills of Karnataka in the eighties. It was to protect their surrounding forests from the government agencies, that had started mono-culture plantations by clear felling trees. It later evolved into a movement by itself, obviously inspired by the Chipko movement of Himalayas. While ecologist Madhav Gadgil’s article gives intricate natural science ethos that must underline the forest management, environmentalist Claude Alvares argues for respecting the voice of local communities in policies and practises of natural resources management. The third one is by the editor himself, which comprehends the importance of genesis and evolution of such people’s action. These insightful arguments have enhanced the worthiness of this book, which are relevant even today in discourses on sustainability and equity.

An article by the editor that stands out as second category is on the history and impact of the ‘Save Western Ghats movement’, one of the most important people’s movements of independent India that took place in the eighties. The historical march from Kerala to Gujarat and the subsequent sensitizing efforts, not only caught the imagination of the wider public on the importance of Sahyadris, but also became a watershed for many environmental movements in subsequent years. Such spirit of collective action seems to be the only true hope left for this ecologically sensitive area.

The third bunch of articles narrates the bewildering mosaics of diverse forms of land and life that  make this unique habitat. And the last pool of essays represent the multiple challenges this land and its people face due to depletion of natural resources caused by wrong priorities in developmental policies.

Much water has flown now in the rivers of Sahyadri, since this book was published in 2009. Once seemingly simple challenges have now grown into complex conflicts. Though many solutions have been proposed over the last decade to address them, including that of Madhava Gadgil’s Western Ghats Ecology Expert Panel (WGEEP), and the report of the Kasturirangan Committee, there seems to be no forward movement. Pandurang Hegde, an activist of the Appiko movement, and incidentally the publisher of this book, believes that a fresh scholarly effort is needed to capture the magnitude of all the issues that are shooting up now in different trajectories. Indeed, any such effort must look into the eco-friendly traditional lifestyles of ‘ecosystem’ people of Sahyadri as well, which may help in exploring the ways forward that could balance economic aspirations and ecological obligations.

Keshava H. Korse
Conservation Biologist and
writer based in Sirsi, Karnataka

First published in the Seminar, November 2020. Few copies of the book are still available. If interested, drop a mail to

Monday, October 19, 2020

One among the muri

Things seemed settled after rather turbulent rains. The clouds had left the sky blue, and multiple hues of green had covered the land. Gangu knew the Chilar must be calling, its crystal clear flows inviting girls to engage with her in some water games. 

Much before she could pronounce, Dhurpi, Thaki, Rakshmi, Janni and Kanti were ready to head for the river with their share of stuff to carry. In their early teens, it was that part of the year this bubbly bunch awaited with excitement for being in Karjat.  

As girls raced ahead dancing and giggling, the familiar setting echoed the past with its melancholic unease for Gangu. Twice their age, she was still ferrying the girls to the riverfront while all her peers had moved out with their grooms. Why?

Is she short of feminine attributes or is the lady luck taking time to smile on her? Her thoughts were speared by a loud call by one among the bunch ordering others to take their positions along the riverfront, to set themselves up for a day of fun and frolic. 

Gangu inspected shallow waters for depth and clarity, to lay trap for catching muri. For her and rest of her clan, what was a freshwater loach to others was an enticing delicacy. She often wondered how her Katkari tribe would survive if there were no muri!

Kanti had led the group to scout for slimy snails and small crabs to set the bait for unsuspecting muri. Placing the crushed bait beneath few stones placed on a black pan, the entrapment was carefully lowered in shallow waters for muri to forage upon.     

The crystal clear waters flowing at a leisurely pace allowed muri the so-called free lunch as the girls went about washing muddy clothes and dirty utensils. With few muri busy taking the bait, the pan would be slowly lifted out of water for the first of many such harvests.  

With sumptuous pickings from different locations, Gangu was ready to feed the girls with delicious muri cooked over a makeshift stove. By the time the girls had danced around and the clothes had dried, the catch was enough to take back for the household. 

Little did it occur to any in the bubbly bunch that they were learning a rather unique practice of catching small fish that would often evade fish nets? That they could learn the trick while at play has been an unwritten virtue of such informal schooling. 

While treading home after a busy day, Gangu thought for herself if she too was not one among the unsuspecting muri who awaited someone to cast a bait for her. Was she ready to give herself up for someone’s consumption, she wasn’t sure yet.

- Sudhirendar Sharma

(Rajeev Khedkar, who has spent a lifetime working for securing land rights for Katkari in Raigad, has helped provide the basic framework for this short story).


The short story is based on the daily life of Katkari girls, the once forest people living in the Western Ghats of Maharashtra (Raigad and Thane), with a special relationship to forest creatures such as the tiger and carried  the sir name of ‘waghmare’, (wagh = tiger, mare = slayer; so tiger slayer). Today this tribe is highly dependent on others for their livelihoods and for a place to live. Most Katkari are landless with only periodic and tenuous connections to their original nomadic, forest-based livelihoods. Many have become bonded laborers working on the brick kilns/charcoal units serving the urban and industrial interests of Greater Mumbai. Their special skills in freshwater fishing, hunting of small mammals/birds remain exclusive.

Friday, July 31, 2020

Malin: A haunting manmade tragedy

The Malin Memorial: author (in hat) with Pandurang Hegde
The village of Ahupe, overlooking the twin mountains of Machindergad and Gorakhgad in the Western Ghats, is tucked picturesquely at an altitude of almost 4,000 ft in the Ambegaon taluk of Pune. This little plateau is a favourite of weekend trekkers who climb upwards from Khopivali in the Konkan to enjoy the lush green valleys and amazing waterfalls. Despite its craggy hills and picturesque dales, it remains one of the most deprived areas, inhabited predominantly by the Mahdeo Koli tribe.

The undulating landscape on basalt rocks is largely grassy, though the cattle population in the region remains sparse. This is because the grass cover is not fodder for cattle, but has a role in binding the top soil layer on the rocky surfaces. The region is home to several devrais, sacred groves protected by rural communities to preserve their biodiversity.

Not many trekkers and tourists ever notice that about 10 km from Ahupe is the uninhabited village of Malin, where no humans live today, because on July 30, 2014, a massive landslide had swallowed up almost the entire tribal village of around 50 families. The final death toll was 153 when the rescue operation was stopped, and around 100 people were reported missing. Nothing of the old village remains except for its school building. A memorial with the names of men, women and children who died has been erected by the State Forest Department. In addition, trees bearing the names of the deceased have been planted to make the lifeless slope look green again.

The Malin tragedy has been long forgotten, but it did trigger a familiar environment versus development debate then, leading to inconclusive studies on the cause-effect of landslides. Interestingly, a few months before the tragic event, in December 2013, the infamous Western Ghats Ecology Experts Panel of the Union Environment Ministry had declared 37 villages in the Ambegaon taluk as ecologically sensitive, banning all kinds of mining, quarrying, and big construction activities. Ironically, the taluk continues to remain a hotspot for real estate developers who entice city-dwellers to park their disposable income in farm houses and boutique residencies.

There were incessant rains the week before the tragedy, as much as 600 mm, which had triggered mudslide of a deeply weathered soils the slope of which are known to be susceptible to disturbance. It is recorded that disturbances were caused by the flattening of large tracts of hills to promote paddy cultivation as a source of livelihood for the tribal under the government scheme called Padkai. In reality, padkai is a traditional practice wherein tribes carefully select small patches of barren uplands to be converted into fields using bullocks. Appropriation of this by the government resulted in heavy earth-moving equipment leveling the land with no regard to its vulnerability.

Given the nature of such ecological devastations, attribution of cause(s) remains a contested subject. The Western Ghats remain as vulnerable as these were on the night of July 30, 2014, and no less than remembering the day as an avoidable human tragedy can have those perished rest in peace.

Utter desolation has settled on the spot which was full of life only a few years ago. Where households once stood with its teeming population, the traveler now beholds a lonely wilderness of concrete memorial of dead people, tall grass and abandoned building, the fittest emblem of the manmade folly. Has the tragic fate of Malin stirred the popular imagination in this country or have we forgotten the past to commit ourselves to repeat it? With landslides being a recurring phenomenon ever since, have we not circumscribed our ecological vision like a frog in the well?

First published in the Hindu BusinessLine, issue dated July 30, 2020 

Tuesday, May 8, 2018

The King of All Times

P Gowri Shankar is as watchful of the King, as the King itself.
One of the most dreadful of all snakes, King Cobra is an innocent creature. Although it has enough venom to kill as many as twenty persons with one bite, it rarely unloads the entire amount in its prey. No wonder, human casualties from King Cobra bite are rare!   

Monday, November 27, 2017

The endless Latha

..with Latha on the sidelines of the historic Kotagiri meeting.
(Pic: Vinay Aditya)
For most of those 42 hours on the train, I had kept thinking about 'Madhu' whom I had never met. In my thoughts I had imagined her to be a young 'mallu' with curly hair washed in coconut oil. No sooner I had alighted at Thrissur on my first ever visit to Kerala in 2002, I had looked around for the elusive young lady on the platform. Not spotting 'her' among those who had come to receive me, I could not hold myself from asking my hosts Latha and Unnikrishnan about 'madhu', whose name had featured as the third host in the invite. What followed was a riot of laughter, as they had instead pointed towards their colleague Mr Madhu-sudan*. 

Laughter, it is said, is the shortest distance between two people, and we had shortened it further in our first meeting itself. Latha and Unni lived their life to the fullest, enjoying every moment of their activists' identity. I was lucky to have had their presence at several 'water' events within the country, and abroad. 'Laughter' was the signature tune of our friendship. Without their untiring contributions, we (me, Pandu and Kalanand) could not have revived the historic Save Western Ghats Movement (of the mid-80s). What followed (the Gadgil Committee) thereafter is history. Need it be said that Latha had played a stellar role in all the public hearings that the Committee conducted through the region. She stood true to her name - Latha Anantha - the endless Latha!

I'm indeed privileged to have drawn the attention of the Ashoka Fellowship towards her untiring efforts to save the Chalakudy river from yet another dam at Athirapally. I had pushed hard for the fellowship to be bestowed on the couple, Unni being the silent Buddha behind all that Latha could accomplish, and proving on the contrary that 'behind every successful woman there is a man'. Latha used to read zodiac signs, and I would often find her checking up with Unni about her interpretations. They don't make couple like this anymore!
In all my visits to Kerala, Latha and Unni had given me an unconditional company. After her winning the first bout against cancer, we did meet in Calicut in early 2015 during first of the inter-faith dialogues we had planned across the region. But her situation had deteriorated thereafter, and the news of her inevitable departure had seemed a matter of time. When I had got a message from Unni at around 10 PM on the night of Nov 15, 2017, I had prayed that she dies only on Nov 16. The reason I had wanted her to depart on Nov 16 was that that is the day I was born. So, as long as I'm alive I'll remember her. That's how she helped define our sweet and sour friendship of over 15 years.  

(My sincere apologies to Madhu and Sreeja, who are now a happily married couple.)      

Sunday, July 23, 2017

Invocation to self-flagellation

1988: The march that was
It has been three decades since the famous Save Western Ghats March, a momentous event in the ecological (activist) history of India. It had reminded people then about the virtues of protecting nature to keep the 'gateway to the monsoons' thriving with natural processes. Much has happened since 1988, when the marchers had congregated in Goa after traversing from the southern and northern tip of nearly 1,600 kms of the amazing biological corridor. While the news of comprising ecology for the sake of development continues unabated, the voices of conservationists has been somehow lost in the din of the fast-paced development. That a large majority favours development is no reason for the small minority to remain silent, because history tells us that a 'majority' has always been protected by a 'minority'. 

'For some reasons, it has come to my realization that pleasure and pain, and in somewhat similar tone paradise and hell co-exist. Paradoxically, neither is complete without the other. Not without reason, therefore, has man understood that suffering, if confronted without fear, is his passport to freedom. There is a volume of literature which indicates that pain indeed complements pleasure, prompting people through the ages to inflict pain as a way of attaining freedom, a celebration of life. A Treatise in Self-flagellation, published in 1718, shows how to achieve pleasure through pain, but without harming the body. In ancient Greece, the finest Spartan warriors were whipped once a year, from morning till night, in homage to the goddess Artemia, while the crowd urged them on, calling on them to withstand the pain with dignity, for it was preparing them for the world of war. At the end of the day, the priests would examine the wounds on the warriors' backs and use them to predict the city's future.'  

The contours of the resilient ecosystem of the Western Ghats, and the emerging challenges posed by persistent obsession with development calls for the young spartans of the Sahyadri to prepare themselves for protecting the unsuspecting people, flora and fauna of the region, yet again.  

(the text in italics is from the Preface to the book Sahyadri: Reminiscences and Reflections, 2009, Prakruti. Limited copies of the colorful book are available from